Skip to main content

Cruising couple bound for Newfoundland

After a successful cruise to southern Newfoundland, Cindy White and Ian Thomas decided to sail around the Canadian island.

Cindy White and Ian Thomas are a “mature” couple living in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y. They had careers in fashion and publishing, respectively, and now own a business importing hand-painted enamel boxes from England. They started sailing dinghies off Long Island in the 1980s before graduating to a 20-foot O’Day, a 33-foot Comar and finally a Frers designed 46-foot Hylas sloop, Nirvana III, which has nearly 30,000 nautical miles and 4,700 engine hours under her keel. Every summer Nirvana III sails to Newport, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, FisherIsland and Block Island. After a successful cruise to southern Newfoundland, the couple decided to sail around the Canadian island. This is the story of that voyage, with excerpts from Cindy’s log (in italics) interspersed throughout.

Cindy White felt a touch of jitters when the dockmaster of the Sag Harbor Yacht Club, a native of Maine, advised her and her partner and skipper, Ian Thomas, to inscribe their names on foul weather gear and sea boots before embarking on their cruise to – and around – Newfoundland. Dockmaster Les Black was thinking about the length of the voyage and the rugged weather that can bash the coast of Newfoundland, the easternmost point of North America, with its deep bays and towering headlands wide open to the North Atlantic.

Cindy and Ian departed Sag Harbor, on New York’s Long Island, aboard their Hylas 46 named Nirvana III on July 26, 2007, stopping after daysails at Pt. Judith, R.I., and Scituate, Mass., then sailed two overnights to Halifax, Nova Scotia, arriving in dense fog and rain showers on July 30. The nightly temperature was already hovering at 40 degrees.

Wayne, dockmaster at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, mentions that August is a good time for Newfoundland because most of the icebergs are gone! He tells us to sail only when the winds are fair and below 40 knots. I keep a straight face but think to myself, am I crazy?

On the way to Liscomb on Nova Scotia’s east coast, Nirvana encountered large numbers of seals, beneficiaries of a cold spring that had gripped Newfoundland seal hunting boats in pack ice.

From Liscomb they sailed to Baddeck, their last port on CapeBreton, to install a new fuel pump. With a front moving in for the next two days, they decided not to delay and pressed on overnight across Cabot Strait to Port aux Basque, their starting point for circumnavigating Newfoundland.

On watch at night I’m wearing two Shetland sweaters, hood and gloves, MustoOcean foulies and a blanket. The cockpit enclosure snapped onto the dodger and Bimini is a godsend. In the fog I stare at the radar screen, trying to decipher which images are dangerous. I resolve not to wake up Ian unless I’m really spooked. We arrive in Port aux Basque at dawn. A lone fisherman takes our lines and helps us tie up (the first of many ‘Newfie’ angels we met during the voyage).

They also met David Hunt, a minister who lives on Nova Scotia and spends three months in Labrador “doing God’s work.” David always wanted to sail around the northern tip of Newfoundland and asked to join Nirvana later up the coast. When a spectacular storm blew in that night, Nirvana III snugged down and didn’t venture out until dawn on Aug. 5.

Fair winds on the west coast

Nirvana plowed out through what the crew estimates as eight-foot seas at the harbor mouth, taking green water over her bow and reminding Ian how glad he was to have installed covers at cockpit line opening in the dodger.

As they rounded Cape Ray and turned northerly, a prolonged rain shower obscured the twin peaks known as the Dolly Partons (a bit of Canadian humor). They sailed through the Wreckhouse zone, famous for strong winds that had been known to blow trains off their tracks. But now the wind was 13 knots from the south and they sprinted 95 nautical miles past the capes of Ray, Anguille, St. George and Cormorant to Beach Point, where Nirvana was the only boat in the harbor.

Farther up the northwest coast, Nirvana entered Little Port between towering cliffs and rolled in six foot swells until two local men, Ira and Boyd, helped move her to a more sheltered berth.

Hearing that we wanted to go to the larger town of Cornerbrook for fresh groceries, Ira calls Harold, who shows up in an old Buick, sells us five pounds of fresh cod for $20 Canadian, throws in corned fish (salted cod) and moose meat, and takes us on a tour of the Bay of Islands. We reciprocate in the evening, entertaining 18 of his family and friends and nearly depleting Nirvana’s store of candy and beer.

With David Hunt aboard, Nirvana sailed swiftly in 23 knots of wind along the coastline of the GrosMorneNational Park, passing BonneBay, Port Saunders and Cow Head with its sheer 1,000-foot cliffs.

Rain blew in at 2 p.m. along with the forecast of a deep low late in the day. Until then, there were relatively peaceful conditions until then in the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador. The crew decided to sail overnight to RedBay, Labrador.

We have no charts for the harbor, only David’s knowledge and good eyes, but it’s a logical decision. Twenty knots of a southerly and a favorable current blow us into RedBay at dawn. David’s friend, Roland Layden, who has fished the Strait of Belle Isle all his life, joins us for the passage around the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, around capes Norman and Baud to St.AnthonyHarbor. Along the way we sight an iceberg the size of the Waldorf, which Ian reports to St. Anthony coast guard. Dolphins and whales show off their flips, and puffins, fulmars and gannets comb the sea for food.

North Atlantic storms

A nor’easter brought more rain, and the last 20 nautical miles to St. Anthony’s took six hours against a foul tide. The harbor’s entry lights were obscured by rocks, but radar and experience brought them in safely. David leaped to a docked dragger and tied Nirvana alongside. A couple of local shrimpers advised moving to a more protected Canadian coast guard berth around the corner.

That night, secure from the weather, I cook up a big meal of cod, potatoes and vegetables and Ian opens a couple of bottles of wine. David and Roland eat heartily. Sitting back, Roland turns to Ian, “Now I know why you have a girl on board.” I’m tempted to bop him with a frying pan, but I know he means it as a compliment.

The next day, Aug. 9, David left for St. John’s and Roland for RedBay on the ferry before a vicious storm hit. Cindy and Ian were drinking tea with new cruising friends, Renee and Duncan Finlay, aboard their 34-foot Contessa, when repeated siren blasts brought everyone topside. The Canadian coast guard cutter Harp was approaching and noisily demanding its berth.

All hands turned out from nearby vessels – Edouard and Gaston on Argo V; Pat Mervyn and Peter on Marysol; Renee and Duncan, and the first mate who jumped from Harp. Everyone worked in driving rain and 35 knots of wind to move Nirvana alongside Argo V.

That night a squall blasted the harbor with sheet lightening and thunder and winds up to 65 knots. Even a local admitted “there’s a bit of a draught on.”

Friday brought a shift in wind to the north, putting it on Nirvana’s port side. Edouard was afraid Argo V would be crushed between Nirvana and the dragger she was tied to on the other side. Four-foot waves broke against Nirvana’s hull, sending spray over her mainsail cover.

Ian and Edouard realized they had to set out anchors to relieve pressure on Argo V. Edouard contacted Harp and as noon approached, her Hurricane 72 Inflatable, manned by two guardsmen in safety harnesses, life jackets and hard hats bumped alongside and loaded anchor, chain and rode aboard. One guardsman bailed rapidly as his mate put the 40-hp engine in full reverse.

Slowly they backed through the waves and finally dropped the first anchor. They performed the same feat with the second anchor and the gang on Nirvana winched in the rodes. Nirvana now had 12 lines securing her against the onslaught. Ian sent a bottle of wine to Harp to commemorate the storm of Aug. 9 and 10.

The next day Cindy and Ian borrowed a truck, not unusual in Newfoundland, and visited L’Anse aux Meadows, a Viking settlement in 1000 A.D., and later the 19th century home of Sir William Grenfell, an English physician who brought medicine to Labrador and Newfoundland.

That night Nirvana held happy hour for all its new angels. In the morning they helped pick up anchors, stow lines and warp Nirvana around for departure.

A shifting problem

That evening, approaching a crude dock in HoopingHarbor, Nirvana’s engine refused to shift into reverse. After some tense circling, Ian realized he had a serious throttle problem. Local help wasn’t available so on Aug. 12 they motored to La Scie with a hand-held string attached to the throttle and a convoy of dolphins gamboling in the bow wave.

Nirvana rode large ocean swells through cliffs at the entrance to the picturesque fishing village. A young man on the dock helped secure lines, contacted an Esso diesel truck, and brought fresh water through a hose from the lakes above the village.

Claude Saunders – harbor master, mayor and Salvation Army organist – charged them a dockage fee, their first and only on Newfoundland. Saunders then introduced Charlie Tilly, a retired marine mechanic. Charlie came aboard in the evening to find that the throttle cable had parted inside its sheath at the control end. The following morning he removed the old cable and installed a new one with the aid of a coat hanger and Circlip pliers.

After much protest, Charlie accepts a small payment and insists on taking us on a tour of 400-year-old La Scie, a prosperous fishing village beginning to invest in tourism. In the afternoon, we see dories leave the harbor and return a little later with their allotment of five cod for each person on board.

Early the next morning, Nirvana left for Fogo under overcast skies against 23 knots of wind from the south-southeast. A huge humpback whale lolling in the lee of Cape St. John lazily flipped its tail and disappeared below. The rocky islands protecting the fishing village of Fogo gave the sailors another reason to use radar in the daytime — three carefully entered waypoints taken from a large-scale chart proved to be on land.

Nirvana berthed at the town dock. Harbor Master Gail presented them with a Fogo mug and magnet, then sold them a pound of crabmeat for $11 Canadian.

She took them to the re-created Marconi wireless relay station above the town, which received the first distress call from the Titanic.

We leave Fogo the next day at 0530 amid low clouds and fog banks. The fog gets thicker, the wind pipes up to 28 knots and short, steep waves start to break. We don’t reach Lumsden west of Buonavista until 2300 in thick fog and a building gale. Fortunately it’s well-marked and we anchor behind the 65-foot Polar Queen. In the twilight, we tour the village (pop. 604) with Randy Gibbon, local fire marshal and fish processing plant manager. As part of Canada’s resettlement program, all the houses had been moved a half-mile inland, leaving the harbor deserted and ice-bound from November to June.

More storms

On Aug. 17, NOAA, which had warned of the storm that hit St. Anthony a week before, now forecast a deep low for Monday and Nirvana departed Catalina at 3:30 a.m. to get to St. John’s before the storm. As expected, wind gusts hit 40 knots with six-foot breaking seas. The last 15 nautical miles took four hours but they finally entered St. John’s Harbor through a narrow opening in spectacular cliffs. The big low moved in and sat for a couple of days.

We hire a car and drive across Cape St. Francis to Conception Bay, home of the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club. Race week had just ended and General Manager Jim Eastman is handling a giant party, but he greets us cordially and we trade burgees. We meet Susan and Jon Garvin at the bar and later on their C&C 36; they provide navigation advice for our next ports of call.

When the gale lifted the next morning, Nirvana left for Trespassy on the south coast, rounding Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America, in the fog and meeting a southerly with gusts up to 33 knots. Close hauled with her rail down, the Hylas welcomed a lift from the Labrador Current. Sue Garvin had warned them of shoals here and a hard-to-spot buoy at Mistaken Point.

Nirvana safely turned Cape Race as the fog lifted and the wind dropped at the entrance to Trepassy Bay.

After a quiet night, Cindy and Ian departed Trespassy at 4:30 a.m. and reached St. Lawrence at 8:30 p.m., slogging across Placentia Bay with a 25-knot wind on the nose.

Moderate winds on Aug. 22 along with a forecast of strong southwesterlies convinced the sailors to depart Newfoundland and sail directly to Louisbourg on Cape Breton. An overnight leg brought them there at 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 23, accompanied by sun and a convoy of dolphins, their circumnavigation of Newfoundland completed.

Blow-out above

At one time, the capital of French Canada, Louisbourg, was the site of a huge fortress, now a major tourist attraction. From Louisbourg Nirvana intended a long hop southeast to Liscomb, but as she approached the Strait of Canso, the wind increased to 30 knots bearing a thick fog.

Suddenly a loud bang, the sails started flapping and Nirvana rounded up. Six lengths of reinforced nylon webbing that secured the steel ring to the clew of the main had torn off. Nirvana couldn’t make Liscomb until long after dark, so they pressed on overnight to Halifax. At 2 a.m. on Aug. 27, the wind went round to the southwest, the fog lifted and Nirvana motor-sailed with the genny under a full moon. In Halifax, Doyle Sails removed the main and returned it repaired.

We sailed 2,461 nautical miles. Our northernmost point was Red Bay, Labrador, 51-43-23 north latitude. The most easterly was Cape Spear, 52-36-44 west longitude. We dock at the Sag Harbor Yacht Club on Sept. 3, present Commodore Carl Marino with burgees from the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron and Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club. I get lots of hugs and of bottle of champagne, which we drink immediately.